Facing the consequences of Generation Porn

Lauren Shirreff

CN: rape, physical violence, intimate partner violence, pornography.

What makes someone bad in bed? This can be a question of taste, but it’s unsurprising that responses to it differ markedly along lines of gender and sex. Professor Sarah McClelland set out to investigate attitudes to sexual satisfaction in young people in one University of Michigan study. What she found was that ‘men and women imagined a very different low end of the sexual satisfaction scale’. For women, the worst sex entailed ‘extremely negative feelings and the potential for pain’; for men, ‘less satisfying sexual outcomes, but [never] harmful or damaging outcomes for themselves’.

It is no secret that women often find sex painful. Many young women are afraid of having sex for the first time because of the pain they expect to come with it. Often there is the view that sex is a kind of trade off: women will allow men to have sex with them in exchange for attention and affection, so why should she expect to enjoy it? The idea that women have their own sexualities independent of men is something we are only just coming round to, and something that is at times still lacking reflection in our own intimate relationships. It’s common for women to have sex with their partners even when they don’t really feel like it, just to please them – or to keep quiet when something hurts or is uncomfortable, so as not to ruin their fun. This is a problem in itself. A greater issue, and one far more dangerous, is the sexualisation of women’s pain.

In November last year, the BBC published research indicating that a third of UK women aged under 40 have experienced unwanted violent or degrading behaviour during otherwise consensual sex with men. This could include slapping, spitting, choking or other acts of aggression. 20% of respondents said that they were left frightened or upset by this behaviour, whether they had consented to it previously or not. If this happened between a woman and her partner in a non-sexual context, it would be considered assault – so why is this behaviour so common in the bedroom? And why do so many men believe that this is not a violation of consent?

Campaign group We Can’t Consent To This has stated its knowledge of women in their forties or fifties experiencing this kind of violence, but it is especially prevalent among young people. This is something I know of anecdotally. When I’ve discussed my friends’ experiences of one-night stands with them, as friends do, often this kind of behaviour will come up. Many prefer to laugh this off – as I have before, too – but it can just as easily leave someone in tears. Women who have experienced sexual assault or intimate partner violence before can be retraumatized by such behaviour. It can leave physical injury. It can put you off sex – and women deserve to enjoy sex just as much as men. These acts are degrading, and they can be painful, and they can happen in established relationships just as easily as they can in casual encounters.

It can be difficult to understand why someone would want to do this to their partner without consent, and so it’s necessary to look more closely at what influences our sexual behaviours. The most readily available explanation lies in pornography. The Australian Institute for Family Studies found in a 2016 study that nearly half of young people aged between nine and sixteen experience regular exposure to sexual imagery. It’s a well-established fact that men most easily experience arousal from visual stimuli over other kinds of media, and so young men are more likely than young women to seek out pornography online. With school sex education hesitant to discuss sex outside of its purely biological contexts, there is often nothing else to inform people in this age group about what makes people want sex and what kinds of sex acts can be done safely. And further to this, the active use of pornography in adolescence is linked to stronger belief in gender stereotypes, again in men especially, breeding attitudes of entitlement and resentment of women who ‘lead men on’.

Adolescents who consumed more extreme pornography were found to be six times as likely to initiate aggressive sexual practices like those experienced by a third of women without their consent – slapping, choking, and verbal violence. So it’s not that all – or even very many – men are inherently aroused by violence against women; otherwise, we would see no increase in sexual aggression in this group as compared to those of the same age that had never watched porn. Rather it’s the case that because people are being exposed to porn at such an early age, by the time they reach sexual maturity, they’ve become desensitised to it. It therefore takes more to provoke arousal, and this is a self-renewing cycle in its own right: something that is inherently arousing, like nudity, is combined with acts of violence, and so regular viewers start to associate one with the other. And consent is rarely asked for in porn – it isn’t sought verbally, or even through non-verbal cues. Young people are left without an adequate working knowledge of what consent looks like. Men aren’t confident in obtaining it from others, and women aren’t taught how to recognise a violation of it in their own sexual experiences.

Women in porn are often shown to enjoy this kind of violence, or else something sexual is made out of their lack of enjoyment. In reality, people of all genders have a variety of sexual appetites. There is nothing wrong or shameful about exploring these safely and with consenting partners; the issue is that consent is not made to seem natural, or mandatory. Our discussions of consent aren’t expansive enough to even barely touch fantasy or unconventional sexual acts. But even though its impact is evident, we can’t just blame porn – like all forms of media, sexual content can’t be removed from its social contexts. The things that appear in porn don’t come out of nowhere. They run on social scripts, about the roles of women versus men in society. Extreme pornography featuring same-sex couples can be found online, but it is less readily available to young people who often stumble across sexual content accidentally at first.

Violence in porn both reflects and projects the factors that make sexual violence against women so common: the perceived realities of masculinity and femininity, the belief that men are decision-makers and women rule-followers, the minimisation of sexual assault to anything other than trauma. Vaginal or anal sex that isn’t properly prepared for can cause injury. Hitting and slapping can leave bruises. It’s possible for a man to leave a woman with permanent damage to her throat if he chokes her. Pornography capitalises on the realities of sexual violence, sanitises them, and repackages them for a male market as erotic. It is in this way that unregulated pornography puts women in harms way, and it isn’t prudish to assert this as fact. Alarm bells would ring if a stranger were to hit your female friend in a public place – and this is why they don’t, sometimes, when he does it without her consent in the midst of a sex act.

In reclaiming their sexual agency, women will experiment with different types of sex. This has meant evolving the kind of language we use to discuss what we want, and supporting feminist movements that encourage sex positivity. And while these are good things, it can at the same time make it easier for predatory men to take advantage of those in vulnerable positions. Women new to sex might be told that the behaviours violating their comfort or consent are normal – that they themselves are boring or even unfair for not allowing these things to be done to them, that consent does not need to be asked for consistently so long as there is an initial yes. It’s convenient for men with bad intentions that our picture of the liberated woman is one wherein she always enjoys sex and is sexually adventurous. And while it’s true that many women love sex, and that acknowledging this is an important step in putting women on par with men, there is such a thing as the free asexual woman too.

To reduce the violence women experience in otherwise consensual sex, we have to be willing to discuss what it is from sex that we want. Everyone who engages in sex deserves to enjoy it, and to feel safe and respected. Trying new things is okay and healthy – but it should never come at the expense of someone else’s happiness, and it should never be done without considering how it can be done most safely. Verbal consent shouldn’t be a turn-off, or an interruption of the mood. Done right, with full respect for our partners’ wants and needs, it should be the thing that comes to us most naturally of all.

Note: While women experiencing violence during otherwise consensual sex is the topic of discussion taken in this article, we understand that this can happen regardless of someone’s gender or sexual orientation, and that men who have sex with men can be particularly prone to this. We also understand that male sex workers often lack adequate rights and protections too. Further, we acknowledge that trans women are the victims of violence – sexual or otherwise – far more frequently than are cis women, and this article does not intend to minimise their experiences or keep them out of this conversation. For male or LGBTQ+ specific support, please see our signposting page. 

Image credit: Robyn Allen.